Dick Powell

What We Know About “Convention City”

Convention City Joan Blondell

Nothing makes a person want to see something quite like being told they can’t see it. Anytime a movie causes a stir because of its content, people will inevitably want to see it for themselves so they can make up their own minds about it. But when you take a movie that has a reputation for scandalous content and add in the fact that nobody can see it — literally — you get a movie that becomes a special breed of legendary film.

In 1933’s Convention City, the employees of the Honeywell Rubber Company arrive in Atlantic City for a convention. Of course, business the last thing on the minds of the visitors and they quickly get mixed up with booze, women, and other acts of debauchery. When it was released, it did pretty well at the box office, but it’s been largely unseen since then because no prints are currently known to exist. Not even the original theatrical trailer is known to exist.

When Convention City was released in December 1933, Hollywood was in the midst of its glorious pre-code era, which would come to an end less than a year later when the production codes started being fully enforced in July of 1934. Films during this era were often very suggestive, risqué, and innuendo-laden and Convention City certainly has a reputation in that respect. A critic for the New York Times said of Convention City, “Several of the jokes require a subterranean mind to be understood correctly.” In one of her books, Joan Blondell wrote about how she had a private copy of the movie and liked to screen it at parties because of its content, describing it as, “…the raunchiest there has ever been…we had so many hysterically dirty things in it.” Blondell also described Convention City as being ” burlesque-y.” In fact, legend has it that Warner Brothers ultimately destroyed the film because its content was so completely unfit to be re-released under the production codes. (We’ll talk more about that in just a minute.)

Convention City was more than just risqué content, though; it also had a pretty stellar cast. Several top stars of the time such as Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, and Adolphe Menjou are all in the film, leading Screenland magazine to dub Convention City, “the comedy Grand Hotel.” Even if it didn’t have a reputation for scandalous content, the cast alone would be enough to have classic film fans clamoring to find a print of it.

First of all, let’s discuss the idea that Convention City was destroyed because it was simply too controversial to be re-released. It is true that Warner Brothers listed their negative of Convention City as being junked in 1948, but according to Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project, this was because the nitrate negative had deteriorated and could potentially pose a safety hazard. However, hundreds of prints were made for the film’s original release and were circulated around the world. Just because Warners junked the original negative, that doesn’t necessarily mean every single print of the film was successfully recalled and destroyed, too. Over the years, stories about it being shown later in the 1930s and 1940s have surfaced, so there is evidence to suggest that not all prints were systematically destroyed by Warner Brothers.

There’s also the fact that, despite its reputation, Convention City was hardly the most controversial film to come out of the pre-code era. Other highly controversial films like Baby Face and The Story of Temple Drake were both also deemed unsuitable to be re-released under the production codes, but we’re still able to see those movies today. (Although Baby Face was only available in a censored form until an uncut print was found in one of the Library of Congress’ film vaults in 2004.) So content alone clearly wasn’t enough for a movie to automatically earn a one-way ticket into oblivion.

Not everything about Convention City has been lost to the ages, though. Some footage that had been filmed for establishing shots in Convention City was discovered in the late 1990s. Several stills from the film still exist, as does the original script. Thanks to the fact that the script still exists, a few live readings of the script have been staged over the years. Some people who attended the live readings have compared it to 1934’s The Merry Wives of Reno, which features some of the same stars as Convention City.  The fact that Convention City has been compared to Merry Wives of Reno both delights and frustrates me since I seem to remember that movie being pretty hilarious.

So, while there might not be any prints of Convention City that are currently known to exist, there is still a possibility that a print could be found someday. Many film historians and archivists are certainly keeping an eye out for this lost pre-code gem. If a print ever is found, it will absolutely be a very happy day for pre-code cinema fans everywhere.

Gold Diggers of 1935

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

During the summer months, the Wentworth Plaza is a popular destination for wealthy people to beat the heat. Among them is Mrs. Prentice (Alice Brady) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart). Although Mrs. Prentice has more money than most people could ever dream of having, she’s notorious for being an absurdly cheap penny-pincher. She also wants Ann to marry T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert), an older but very rich man who is an expert on snuffboxes. Thorpe is not Ann’s type at all and she desperately wants to have some fun.

Finally, Mrs. Prentice agrees to let her have some fun by hiring Dick Curtis (Dick Powell) to be her escort for the summer. Although Dick is engaged to Arline (Dorothy Dare), she approves of the idea since the money is good. Dick and Ann have a lot of fun together (and enjoy running up Mrs. Prentice’s bills), and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Prentice is at work organizing her annual show to raise money for the Milk Fund. She ends up hiring Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou) to direct the show, but she doesn’t realize that he’s working with other people to make the show as lavish and extravagant as possible so they can get more money out of Mrs. Prentice.

Simply put, Gold Diggers of 1935 pales in comparison to 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, or Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s not like the basic plotlines of those movies are anything complex, but the plot of Gold Diggers of 1935 feels paper-thin in comparison. I also really missed stars like Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers; although Alice Brady clearly has a field day hamming it up as the wealthy cheapskate.

But, since this is a Busby Berkeley movie, Gold Diggers of 1935 features some truly stunning musical numbers. Although 1935, on the whole, is really weak compared to his big hits of 1933, Busby Berkeley was still bringing his “A” game to the musical numbers. In terms of ambition and creative vision, he really outdid himself. No one is expecting anyone to honestly believe these numbers could actually be done on a real stage, but they’re an extravagant feast for the eyes. “The Words Are in My Heart” number with all those pianos is simply breathtaking and calling “The Lullaby of Broadway” a musical number almost feels like it’s selling it short; it’s more like a short film unto itself.

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

Christmas in July (1940)

Christmas in July If there’s one thing Jimmy MacDonald (Dick Powell) can’t resist, it’s entering a contest. He’s not exactly successful at winning them, but when he enters a big slogan writing contest sponsored by Maxford House Coffee, he figures he’s due to win big. The night the winners are set to be announced on the radio, the results end up being delayed by a stubborn judge. At work the next day, some of Jimmy’s co-workers leave a fake telegram on his desk telling him he’s won and the whole office gets caught up in his excitement. The grand prize is $25,000 so at last Jimmy can afford to marry his girlfriend Betty (Ellen Drew) and buy some nice things for his month.

Since Jimmy works for a rival coffee company, when his boss finds out he’s won the Maxford House contest, he promotes Jimmy from being a clerk to working in the advertising department. Before his friends can tell him he hasn’t actually won, Jimmy’s on his way to pick up his check from Maxford House. When Jimmy shows up claiming to be the winner, Dr. Maxford (Raymond Walburn) just assumes the contest judges have kept him out of the loop again and gladly signs the check. Jimmy and Betty go out and buy gifts for everyone in the neighborhood.

When Maxford finds out the judges hadn’t actually picked a winner, he stops payment on the check, sending the head of the department store out to find Jimmy and take back the stuff he bought. Humiliated, Jimmy doesn’t know if he really has what it takes to cut it at his new job because the only reason he had any confidence was because of that contest. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, over at Maxford House, the judges have finally picked a winner — him.

Christmas in July is one of Preston Sturges’ more under-appreciated movies. Dick Powell struck a perfect balance of being incredibly heartfelt and sincere without being saccharine. Sincerity without saccharine is exactly what Preston Sturges did best as well. Christmas in July is a wonderful, sharp, fast-paced (67 minutes!) lark. It’s a prime example of how much you can do with a fairly short amount of time.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

What’s on TCM: November 2013

Burt LancasterHappy November, everyone!  As always, there are plenty of wonderful movies to look forward to on TCM, but it’s going to be a little bit of a quiet month.  But considering that the past few months on TCM have been extremely busy between Summer Under the Stars, the Story of Film series, and all the classic horror movies for Halloween, I know I need a lull in the action so I can have time to catch up on some of the things I’ve recorded.

The Story of Film series isn’t quite over yet, it will finish up this month.  But instead of it being on Monday and Tuesday nights, it will only be on Monday nights this month.

The Story of Film series is heading into the modern era and that may be of less interest to some of you, but fear not!  There are still some gems from the earlier days of film to look forward to.  On November 17 and 24, TCM will be showing Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive during Silent Sunday Nights.  The movies featured on these nights are films that were thought to be lost until they were found in a film archive in New Zealand a few years ago.  Some of the films that will be featured include 1927’s Upstream, directed by John Ford, and 1924’s The White Shadow, which is the earliest existing film to credit Alfred Hitchcock (he was its assistant director, writer, art director, and editor.)

November’s Friday Night Spotlight is going to be very fun with a showcase of classic screwball comedies.  Plus we get Burt Lancaster as Star of the Month; his work will be featured every Wednesday night.

Now, let’s get to the rest of the schedule…

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It Happened Tomorrow (1944)

When a couple has been married for fifty years, it’s only natural that they’d spend the night of their fiftieth anniversary reminiscing about the past.  But Larry Stevens (Dick Powell) has the most interesting story of all time to look back on: how he used to be able to get tomorrow’s news today.  When Larry was younger, he worked at The Evening News as an obituary writer and eventually worked his way up to regular reporter.  He’s so eager to make it as a reporter that he tells his friends that he’d gladly trade ten years of his own life just to be able to get tomorrow’s news today.  When Pop Benson hears him say this, he tells him how dangerous it could be to know the future.  Larry and his friends drop the conversation and head out of the offices.  As they’re walking along, they see a sign at a nightclub for Oscar Cigolini the fortune-teller and they decide to go inside and catch his act.  Oscar performs with his niece Sylvia (Linda Darnell), and when Larry sets eye on her, it’s love at first sight and he invites her to lunch.  After the guys leave the nightclub, Larry runs into Pop again and Pop gives Larry a copy of the newspaper.  Thinking nothing of it, Larry just puts it in his pocket and forgets all about it.  The next day, a friend of his sees the paper in his pocket and borrows it to look at the job listings.  But after a few minutes, Larry realizes that the paper Pop gave him the night before is full of news that hasn’t actually happened yet.

One of the stories in the paper is that the opera house box office is going to be robbed that afternoon.  When he gets to the office, Larry begs his editor Gordon to let him cover the concert being held there.  When Sylvia shows up for their date, he brings her along to the concert and sure enough, the box office is robbed while they’re there.  Before they left for the concert, Larry had copied down the article from the paper so he arrives back at the office a mere ten minutes after the robbery with the article ready to go.  Gordon is rightfully skeptical about this, but then Inspector Mulrooney confirms it.  But then Inspector Mulrooney is suspicious about how Larry knows so much about the robbery and Sylvia tells him that she predicted it.  And to prove it, she predicts that a woman will attempt suicide by jumping off a bridge.

When Larry gets another newspaper from the future from Pop, he tells the police where to find the robbers and gets to the bridge just after a woman has jumped in.  After he dives in after her, he realizes the woman was really Sylvia, who jumped in just to make her own prediction come true.  When Larry starts telling his fellow reporters that he can see the future, his friends tell him to put his money where his mouth is and tell them which horses are going to win at the racetrack tomorrow.  Larry gets another paper from Pop and, thinking he’s going to make a fortune at the racetrack, proposes to Sylvia.  But when Larry looks a little more closely at the paper, he finds out that he will be shot to death in a hotel tomorrow.  He still goes to the racetrack, wins a fortune, and marries Sylvia anyway, but one of his bookie’s minions isn’t too happy about Larry winning so much money and robs him.  When Larry gets to the hotel he’s supposed to die in, he runs into the guy who robbed him and chases him down.  The two get into a huge fight that ends with the bookie’s cohort being shot down by police.  But because he has Larry’s wallet on him, they mistakenly think they killed Larry.  Larry and Sylvia go on to live a long and happy life together and live to celebrate their golden anniversary.

By now, the idea of a movie about someone who can get tomorrow’s news today really doesn’t seem like a terribly unique idea.  In the time since it was released in 1944, the show Early Edition has used the same general concept and there was a similar episode of The Twilight Zone.  But even if it doesn’t feel terribly original to viewers nowadays, it’s still a pretty interesting movie.  Dick Powell and Linda Darnell were good in it, it’s well-directed, and the story is good.  I wouldn’t call it one of my favorites, but it is worth watching.

Dames (1934)

Dames 1934 Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley loved to taunt censors and uptight people, so I guess it’s no big surprised that he did a whole movie making fun of the morally self-righteous.  In Dames, Hugh Herbert plays Ezra Ounce, an eccentric millionaire with exceptionally high moral standards.  He’s looking for family members he can leave ten  million dollars to in his will and it looks like his cousin Matilda Hemingway (ZaSu Pitts) is one of his few options.  The catch is that he wants to leave his money only to the most upstanding family members, so nobody like his distant relative Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), who has his career in showbiz.  To make sure Matilda and her family meets his high standards, he goes to New York to live with them for a while and his stay is a disaster before he even arrives.  Matilda’s husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) accompanies him on the trip by train and returns to his cabin to find showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) sleeping in his bed.  She needed a way to get out-of-town after her show closed so she snuck into his cabin.  Trying to avoid a scandal, Horace gives her $200 and tells her not to mention it to anybody.

Meanwhile, Horace’s daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) has been having an affair with Jimmy (they’re 13th cousins) and wants to star in one of his shows someday.  With Uncle Ezra in town, it’s a challenge to keep all these juicy details from costing them their inheritance.  Especially when Mabel comes back and blackmails Horace into giving her the money Jimmy needs to put on his new show so that she can star in it.  When the press writes about the new show, they say it’s positively scandalous and that it’s being backed by a mysterious millionaire.  On opening night, Horace, Ezra, and Matilda show up just to see how bad it is.  The first musical number doesn’t shock them too much, but then Barbara does her first number and they’re pleased with how harmless it was.  By the end of the show, they think it’s great!  But their change in mood also had something to do with the fact that they spent the entire show drinking a health tonic that happens to be 23% alcohol.  But at long last, Uncle Ezra realizes that being high and mighty is awfully overrated!

1933 was a truly spectacular year for Busby Berkeley.  He added his signature touch to three of the most iconic musicals of all time, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade, all in the same year.  With a year like that, it should come as no surprise that by 1934, he’d be slowing down just a little bit.  Dames most definitely doesn’t live up to the standards of Footlight Parade, but in all fairness, it would have been extremely difficult for him to live up to anything he had done the previous year.  The story and the musical numbers simply aren’t as solid or memorable as some of his previous efforts.  I’ll walk around with The Shadow Waltz stuck in my head all day, but Girl at the Ironing Board doesn’t have the same effect on me.  Even though we get to see a lot of the classic stars of Busby Berkeley movies like Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, and Ruby Keeler, they just don’t shine as brightly as they had before.  But with all that being said, I did enjoy Dames.  I loved the Dames number and I Only Have Eyes For You.  It was also very funny.  Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade definitely had comedy in them, but Dames was a lot sillier than either of those.  And just because the stars didn’t have quite the same spark as they had before, they certainly weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s a fun three-star follow-up to an unbeatable four-star streak of movies.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with Busby Berkeley musicals.  42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, I love them all.  I can’t watch one of his musical numbers without wondering what on Earth was going through Berkeley’s mind when he came up with these kaleidoscopic extravaganzas.  As much as I love 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, if I had to take one Busby Berkeley musical with me to that deserted island, I think I’d go with Gold Diggers of 1933.

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